Cubs

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

Jon Lester ready to embrace the 'butterflies' again with Cubs in NLCS

LOS ANGELES - This is exactly the moment the Cubs signed Jon Lester for.

Though he's had four postseason starts already in a Cubs uniform, Lester's biggest outing will come Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, when his team will look to deliver a knockdown blow to the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.

Lester will either represent the Cubs' best chance at advancing to the first World Series in a generation.

"It's comforting to know that he's ready to pitch [Thursday]," Joe Maddon said before Wednesday's Game 4 victory. "He's been very consistent all season long. Been there, done that, too. He's done that in Boston. He's doing it again here.

"... He's got this real calm demeanor and approach about him. [Game 1] at home, he wasn't his sharpest, but still gave us a strong opportunity to win that game, and we eventually did. 

"So, I like his mound demeanor right now. ... When he goes out there, you know he's going to be there. He's going to be in the present tense. He's not going to be overwhelmed with the moment, and you like those kind of attributes from the pitcher on that particular day."

In Game 1 of the NLCS, Lester didn't pick up the win, but he still sparked the Cubs to go up 1-0 in the series by allowing just one run in six innings.

Lester only threw 77 pitches in that outing, but Maddon opted to take him out for a chance to score a run in the sixth inning. It didn't work out and Lester admitted he was fuming at being pulled so early, but later calmed down and understood the decision.

"I don't get paid to make decisions," Lester said. "I pitch as long as he tells me to pitch. And as competitors in that particular moment, you're not happy with the decision.

"That doesn't mean that I'm going to go in there and yell at him or I don't trust him or I don't like him or anything like that. That's just being a competitor. If you wanted to get taken out of the game, then you probably aren't on this stage right now."

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In what may be his last press conference of the year, Lester spent a lot of time looking back on his decision to sign with the Cubs.

Lester made a huge leap of faith to sign with a team that finished the 2014 season with 89 losses, but he trusted in Theo Epstein's front office and their assessment of the young guys like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell coming up through the system.

"I mean, it's tough. You're betting on words, really," Lester said. "We've all seen guys that are uber prospects that have gotten called up and don't turn into anything. So you just have to believe. 

"I like the fact that I knew Theo from Boston and dealt with him a lot on that. I think that relationship just helped lead to me kind of knowing he wasn't BS'ing me. And you can tell when people are talking about people how they actually feel about them. And these guys really, really believed in these young guys, like I said, not only as players but as people."

Two years later, both sides are happy with that $155 million deal.

The Cubs have won 200 games over the last two regular seasons and are now in the NLCS for the second straight October.

Lester has been brilliant in his two playoff starts this year - 0.62 ERA, 0.71 WHIP - and has been exactly what the Cubs wanted both on the mound and in the clubhouse. He presents a very difficult matchup for the lefty-heavy Dodgers lineup.

"Theo and Jed [Hoyer, Cubs GM] being able to pull that one off was huge for our advancement, there's no question," Maddon said.

Now, the Cubs need at least one more big game from their battle-tested ace with 112 postseason innings on his resume.

As the tension builds around a Cubs team that can't find its groove on offense, Lester admitted he has some nerves going into a critical Game 5.

"I'm always nervous," he said. "If it's a June start or if it's a World Series start, whatever, I always get butterflies. I've kind of always had the belief that if those butterflies leave, then it's time for me to go on home."

Lester also echoed his buddy John Lackey about how experience in the postseason can sometimes be overrated.

"Sometimes it's good to be naive and stupid and have no idea what that moment is like," Lester said. "And just go out there and, I've said it before - pitch dumb, play dumb. Have no idea what this moment means. Just go out and play. And I think sometimes that helps.

"Sometimes we can be - talking about numbers - we can be overloaded with information to where we're thinking about the wrong things instead of just enjoying the moment and playing."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?

Kap is joined by Doug Glanville, Nick Friedell, and Seth Gruen. The guys preview the NLCS rematch at Wrigley between the Cubs and Dodgers, discuss Kris Bryant's return to the leadoff spot, and consider the possibility of a 6-man rotation upon Darvish's return from the DL.

Plus, the guys weigh in on the Bulls' options in the NBA Draft on Thursday.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live podcast here